By way of apology for a seemingly cold and insensitive remark, let me try to make it up to you with a gift. These are the three pieces of advice my late wife gave me before she died, leaving me with three smelly, rambunctious and dangerous boys. Well, that and the strict warning not to use the insurance money for an expedition to Mt. Everest (Damn it!). That was probably the “bullet” she was saving for me. These three pieces of advice certainly helped me, when I managed to remember them anyway.
By way of a preface let me say that after 25 years of parenting, I really don’t think I’m any better at it than I was in the beginning, just older, way older. What I have learned is that kids break your heart, over and over and over. And like some weird pernicious disease, you end up loving them more every day. That doesn’t always mean you like them though. You’re not supposed to, that’s the signal that something needs to be done.
It starts when they are just infants and they cry all night to tell you you’re inept and a total loser as a parent. Then they fall happily asleep and leave you like a worn out dishrag to face the day. It continues with the “perfect present” it took months to decide on, then find, and it turns out they clearly prefer the box it came in. The box they wont come out of for the next three days, even to eat. It’s when they throw the thoughtfully packed cheerios in your hair while your driving, it’s why you carry 5 pacifiers and continually suck it up when they toss them, one by one, out the window. It’s when they decide the best time to have a melt down is when you’re having a dinner party or mention to your mother in law what a liar you are. It goes on and on.
As a mother of a girl you may find the pre-teen years to be the “Age of surly,” or possibly “Poison tongues.” Just wait until they’re 13, your hair will start falling out for good reason. It wants to get away. Sometimes, in your own home, she may say she hates you with cold fury, but just wait until she wishes you dead at the top of her lungs in the dairy aisle of your favorite supermarket. “Clean up in aisle 7, mom’s head exploded.”
You need powerful weapons to combat the rigors and stress of child rearing, all the sympathy in the world doesn’t help when it’s your responsibility to turn these unkept little monsters in to actual people. So at long last, here are the three pieces of advice my wife gave me.
Number one: Pick your battles, in your own time, on your own turf.
You can’t fix everything at once. The floor of the room that hasn’t seen daylight in 2 years may have to wait. The clothes that are either dirty from not seeing a washer in a month, or filthy in thought and whore’ish intent, may just have to make it to school that day. The healthy lunches you lovingly pack may just end up in the trash or be traded for sodas and cigarettes. Ignore everything else and focus on one thing to work on and be relentless with that. You have time and it will soften them up for your next target. At all costs don’t let your kids pick the battles for you. You say when and where the discussions happen.
Number two: Learn to block.
Be ready for the terrible psychological blows your child will deal out at a moment’s notice. If you have boys be ready for the physical ones as well. They have no idea what they are doing, their cute little brains are only half formed. Nothing they say means anything until they’re 30 anyway. Besides, 90% of the time they are just trying to get a “rise” out of you. Kids experiment with emotions just like everything else. Deal with the situation not the emotions. They have no concept of your life whatsoever, so don’t be hurt by their impressions of you. Don’t even waste the time trying to explain it to them, just say “yeah, yeah yeah,” and move on with your job. They still love you, their just stupid.
Number three: Always keep a bullet in your gun.
Most women seem to do this instinctively, but it’s tougher for men. Keep one devastating comment or action ready at all times to deliver in case of emergency. Use this sparingly and it will be all the more effective. When tempers are shooting through the roof and the shouting starts, fire away and bring things down a notch. When those little heels are dug in deep and the ego has become immense, deflate it and snap them back to reality. If it’s an important lesson, apologize later to drive the point home. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that. You don’t smell all that bad, it’s really kind of organic.” or “Oh, I wasn’t really crying dear, I just had something in my eye,” then look them directly in the eye so they know who you’re talking about.
My wife probably knew a lot more about parenting, but she also knew my brain only holds three things at a time, and it’s old, very old. I’ve been a parent now for a thousand years. There will come a time when all that love and patience will pay off and you’ll know, you did this. You are a big part of the reason this wonderful child is a success. You helped make the shining graduate that’s collecting their diploma on the stage. And you’ll be ready later when they say, “Dad, you know those last three rent checks? Well, they didn’t actually make it to the landlord. He’s kind of pissed. Would you try and straighten him out?”
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2012